Nethereal by Brian Niemeier [Amazon link] is an imaginative and densely written trip straight to Hell. And not in any metaphorical manner whatsoever.
The pacing of Nethereal is relentless. New characters, new places, new intrigues are introduced without any explanation whatsoever. This is the kind of book I feel like I need to read over again just to get it all straight in my head. Everything had a place, but you didn’t necessarily know what it was when you first encountered it. The sheer scope of it all is a little daunting. But it is all intriguing enough to pull you in.
I appreciate this unconcern with whether the reader quite knows what is going on, as a pause to provide context or explanation would definitely interrupt the very, very strange story that you see unfolding. On one level, the story is very simple. Jaren Peregrine, smuggler and pirate, master of the Shibboleth, will stop at nothing to gain revenge upon the murderers of his people. Everyone else in his life is simply swept up in his monomaniacal quest.
It isn’t at all surprising that Jaren’s path leads to Hell, but as the tale unfolds you find that nothing is what it seems, and greater forces are at play. The obvious touchpoint here is something like 1997’s Event Horizon, a splatter-fest about Faustian forbidden knowledge. Even the ship on the cover of Nethereal by Marcelo Orsi Blanco is vaguely like the eponymous ship from the movie. However, I find the horror more understated in Nethereal. Partly that is due to the different media involved, but also it is that Nethereal is situated in a tradition where there are far worse fates than death. Event Horizon hints at this idea, but it a subdued theme there. Here it is front and center.
The bleak world that Niemeier has created is seemingly without redemption. Like there was a Fall but no Christ to set the universe aright. There are religions of a sort, but it very much feels like a world were God is dead. The powerful prey openly on the weak, the masters of the universe dabble in foul experiments, and the cries of the oppressed go unheard. Thus when Jaren and his crew end up in Hell, it isn’t actually obvious that it is all that different than the place they left.
What is so fascinating here is that Niemeier weaves in subtle hints that Providence is at work, even in Hell. In many ways, this is a harrowing read. Even the characters I feel some sympathy towards are simply monsters, selfish and narrow in all the worst ways. So when you see that redemption might be possible even for such as these, it hits you much harder. Which is the true power of horror, to show us in a visceral way the consequences of departing from the straight and narrow way.
I am very interested in seeing more of this universe that Niemeier has created. I can’t imagine how it could get any crazier, but I bet it will.